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Obama to make first visit to US mosque

The US president will visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore and meet with community leaders on Wednesday
File photo shows US President Barack Obama (AFP)

Seven years into his presidency, Barack Obama will make his first visit as president to an American mosque on Wednesday, offering a symbolic rebuttal of harsh Republican election rhetoric against Muslims.

Obama, whose grandfather converted to Islam, will make the short helicopter ride to the Islamic Society of Baltimore (ISB) mosque, where he will meet community leaders and deliver remarks.

ISB is one of the oldest mosques in the US state of Maryland and it became famous when it was mentioned in the popular podcast Serial.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the president said "ISB is among largest organisations in the nation, and thousands of families are affiliated with this Islamic centre."

He has visited mosques in Malaysia, Indonesia and Egypt as president, but has yet to visit one of America's 2,000-plus places of Islamic worship.

In 2009, a freshly elected Obama travelled to Cairo, the Egyptian capital, to call for a "new beginning" with the Muslim world.

Much of Obama's foreign policy agenda has focused on improving ties with Muslim nations, from making a nuclear deal with Iran to improving ties with Indonesia and ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the effort has been stymied by continued confrontation with militant groups and air strikes - many of them by unmanned drones - in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.

His latest effort to ease interfaith relations comes as a shrill election debate has sullied America's image abroad and with gun attacks in San Bernardino and Philadelphia threatening to shatter post-9/11 religious solidarity at home.

Six days after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, then president George W Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, declaring "Islam is peace". Bush later led the country to the bloody 2003 war in Iraq, souring perceptions of the US in much of the Muslim world.

Today Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has wooed conservative voters by demanding a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants, while frontrunner Ted Cruz has advocated Christian-only admissions and championed "Judeo-Christian values".

'Law-abiding Americans'

The White House is keen to offer a different image of America and draw a contrast between what it calls Republican's "divisive rhetoric" and the country's secular tradition.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama will "affirm the important role that Muslim Americans play in our society" and argue that "law-abiding Americans should be able to worship God in the manner that they see fit.

"And they shouldn't be subject to ridicule or targeting by anybody, let alone somebody who aspires to leading the country," Earnest added.

"We have seen an alarming willingness on the part of some Republicans to try to marginalise law-abiding, patriotic Muslim Americans, and it is offensive."

On Saturday, an aide said Obama's visit would "celebrate the contributions Muslim Americans make to our nation and reaffirm the importance of religious freedom to our way of life".

Obama is also likely to restate his case that groups like Islamic State (IS) pervert Islam and do not represent the vast majority of Muslims.

The United States is home to about 3.3 million Muslims.

Obama is also expected to call on Muslim leaders to help tackle radicalisation. According to the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security, around 81 Muslim Americans were involved in terror-related activities in 2015.

"We know that there are extremist organisations like ISIL that are seeking to use social media to radicalise vulnerable members of the population," said Earnest, using an alternate acronym for IS.

"Certainly the leaders in the Muslim community have a strong interest in preventing that from happening."

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